ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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From Polls to Trolls

The role of social media in the recent elections to the Kerala Legislative Assembly reveals a shift from locally produced, circulated and controlled communication flows to global digital networks.

“Forward, Comrades,” tweeted Sitaram Yechury to V S Achuthanandan (VS), Veteran Leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)–CPI(M), invoking the famous beacon call of P Krishna Pillai, the legendary Kerala communist leader of yore. The nonagenarian VS had just migrated to new media a few days ago, and within a week his Facebook page had gathered more than a lakh followers! The then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy already had a Facebook page of his own, but the entry of VS and the war of words that followed set the tone for the just-concluded assembly election campaign in Kerala.

It was like the inauguration of a new no-holds-barred constituency; every leader worth his or her meme launched their own Facebook page, Twitter accounts and blogs; and every party set up an information technology (IT) cell to oversee their campaign in the digital realm. Many young candidates posted vlogs and selfies on an hourly basis to add pep to their campaign and to make that vital connect with the young generation.

For long, elections in Kerala have been an entrenched battle between two fronts—the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). And it was fought on the streets, in newspaper columns and on TV screens. This year, the fight was “triangulated” with the entry of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was trying to implement the Modi-model hi-tech campaign in the state. With no hope of coming to power, their sole objective was to “open an account” in the state assembly. With no past to defend, achievements to show off, territories to protect, or actions to regret, they went the whole hog, promising to liberate Kerala from the deadlock created by the two fronts.

Despite being a minor presence in politics and power, the NDA was a major presence in the media sphere and set the tone and tenor of electoral discourses. Though their chances of opening an account were remote and near-impossible, all the TV channels and newspapers began to give them equal share/space, unravelling the extent of saffronisation in the Malayalam media. Nothing to lose and everything to gain, their vitriolic campaign to debunk the two fronts seemed to annul the entire sociopolitical history of Kerala, pushing the campaign to new lows. The Prime Minister’s Somalian bloomer (Modi compared Kerala to Somalia in terms of social development indicators and child health) was only a logical extension of their argument. Lakhs of voters tweeted and texted Po Mone Modi (Get lost, Modi boy!), paraphrasing a popular piece of dialogue from a hit film of the Malayalam superstar Mohan Lal.

This election campaign also saw, for the first time, full-blown professional ad campaigns with punchy slogans and taglines, carefully calibrated designs, colour schemes and build-up. If “This land should grow, this rule should continue” was the Congress-led UDF’s tagline, “LDF will come, and all will be fine” was the CPI(M)-led LDF’s counter. The BJP hit out against both the fronts that have alternatively ruled Kerala for the last six decades: “Kerala at the dead end, BJP will show the way.” Earlier, the campaigns had one common slogan for the party with a lot of regional versions based on local issues adding flavour and colour to it; this time around, everything was centrally conceived, designed, laid out and propagated. These ad campaigns seemed to imagine a unitary Kerala, addressing a typical Keralite, who invariably is the TV-watching, middle-class, male Malayalee. Adivasis, other genders and Dalits, slum dwellers and migrants were outside the ambit of the vision and call of these ads.

A report prepared by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) observed that 71 out of the 140 constituencies in Kerala were considered as having high social-media impact, where results were likely to be influenced by social-media users. The most significant aspect of the social-media electioneering and politicking was that it was predominantly targeted at the youth, those who are “networthy” and digital. Most of them were born after 1990—India’s children of globalisation who attained maturity in the new millennium. And this is the generation whose political inclinations the traditional party machinery and apparatchik have no clue about.

Politicians and parties venturing into this world of no rules or restraint of any kind, most often found its uncontrollable nature and flexibility frustrating, tiresome and irritating. Television channels began to feed on Facebook posts to fuel their debates and provoke retaliations from opponents to spiral forward the never-ending polemics of party politics. In this virtual society of anonymous, yet vehemently opinionated, individuals from all over the world, no issue could be discussed at length, nor could any allegation be cleared or questions answered; what was needed were instant reactions and constant updates to keep one’s constituency alive and hooked to the campaign. Most leaders resorted to a troupe of trollers ready to pounce on any comment that could potentially harm their side. With the institutionalisation of trolling, the social-media sites become virtual battlefields of words and images, diatribes and abuses that constantly spilled over to television and newspapers.

This trend marked a definitive shift in how Kerala’s citizens engage with politics: it was a shift from street-side speeches to YouTube videos, from posters on paper and cloth banners to flex and digital imageries on every conceivable surface, from graffiti on walls to posts on Facebook walls, from wayside teashop arguments to social-media chats, and from gossips and rumours to trolls. This shift is from the locally produced, circulated and controlled communication flows to global digital networks. Nothing remains local and regional here; edges bleed and everything flows into everything else. And every tweet, WhatsApp message, SMS or Facebook posting is potentially addressing a global audience, not just the voters in Kerala but also the Malayalee diaspora scattered all over the world. It is the latter who more vehemently took sides and added fire to the polemics. From what used to be a one-way flow of appeals and promises, pronouncements and claims from the party centres and leaders to the masses, it now became a multiverse of many-way flows with no edges or limits; it flows from anywhere to everywhere. An inadvertent word, an unconscious gesture, a callous promise or allegation, thrown at any point of time during the last two decades of televisual history could be quoted back to life to haunt the present.

Do all these social-media interventions and expressions deepen our democracy, by involving more and more citizens in political debates, thus forcing political parties and leaders to listen to diverse opinions and thereby contribute to informed decision-making? Or is it just a never-ending cacophony of highly polemical views and individualised opinions directed more at virtual targets to score immediate points? How is this shift of political engagements from the physical to the virtual shaping public agenda in India today? Will these now-virtual energies, expressions and dissent eventually overflow on to the streets and blossom there as has happened in many other countries? Though the scene is fuzzy at present, the recent Kerala experience tells us that these surely are the questions that are going to decide the tone and tenor, and the depth and feel of democratic engagements in India in the coming years. 

C S Venkiteswaran (venkitycs@gmail.com) is a film critic and commentator based in Thiruvananthapuram. 

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